POSITIVES: It was quite good fun with witty one-liners aplenty and solid turns from the leading cast.
NEGATIVES: A badly misjudged ‘rape joke’ didn’t particularly endear itself to us.
To say that Vicious was highly anticipated by the gay press would be an understatement. For half an hour, Twitter lit up like the national grid. ITV’s foray into a gay-based sitcom certainly seemed to completely polarise critical opinion online.
Vicious centres on an elderly gay couple, Freddie (Sir Ian McKellen) and Stuart (Sir Derek Jacobi). Freddie was an actor of seemingly limited success, despite his protestations to the contrary and Stuart’s insistence that he has only one fan (although, as Freddie reminds us, his fan writes ‘a lot’). Stuart was a barman whom, in one of the many ‘spats’ the two have in the following 30 minutes, Freddie accuses of ‘achieving nothing’ in his life. The ‘hinge’ of the series is the bitchy relationship between the two elderly gents hence, you guessed it, the significance of the title.
As we join the first episode, Stuart (Sir Derek) is receiving the news of the death of a mutual friend, Clive, from his mother. How old this lady must be we are simply left to contemplate. ‘Mother’ appears to be a constant bug-bear for Freddie, who at one points muses whether she has a direct line to Satan which allows her to know about deaths before anyone else does. The death of Clive proves inspiration for a series of conversations regarding death that anyone with elderly relatives of their own will have recognised and chuckled at; apparently, Clive did not suffer, aside from the small matter of having to have a foot amputated, leaving Freddie (McKellen) to contemplate that Clive’s thick ankles probably ‘put up a fight’.
Freddie and Stuart are ably supported by a range of supporting characters, foremost amongst which is Violet (played by Frances de la Tour) in what may admittedly be the somewhat predictable role of the ‘fag hag’. As Violet joins the action, Freddie and Stuart have just received an introduction from their potential new neighbour, Ash (Iwan Rheon), who is viewing the upstairs flat. He has immediately created something of a stir with the elderly couple, especially Freddie, who oscillates between a flirtatious charm offensive on the young man, and rather unsubtle probes as to his sexuality, speculating with Stuart about whether Ash is ‘family’. This is complicated by the fact that Ash is ‘young’ and ‘dumb’ and easy on the eye, assisted by the actor having been provided with any number of figure-hugging leather jackets by the costume department. And that basically sets the scene.
So what to make of Vicious? To be perfectly honest, this reviewer certainly spent the first 15 minutes quite unsure. Firstly, who knew that Sir Derek could be quite that camp? Indeed, Vicious is replete with lots of hand-waving to accompany the acerbic script, not to mention a hand clasped to a forehead in suitably queenie fashion at one point. Whilst this may have induced some ‘eyeball-rolling’ to many, opening Vicious up to the obvious criticism of perpetuating stereotypes, you have to remember that there are lots of very camp gay men and once you got used to it, it wasn’t unfunny. It certainly helped make some of the cutting exchanges between the two main characters suitably entertaining, such as Freddie’s retort to Stuart of ‘I’m surprised you could see it through the milky white film over your cataracts!’
Another broadly positive point about Vicious is the general quality of the acting. We weren’t really sure about Rheon, who seemed to have one facial expression throughout (although this may be due more to characterisation) but it goes without saying that Sir Ian and Sir Derek did a stirling job with what they had, as did de la Tour, whose character also flirts with Ash. Violet asks Freddie about Ash’s whereabouts at one point, referring to him as ‘The one who was flirting with me shamelessly?’, to which Freddie responds with ‘No, he exists!’ That said, some elements of the scriptwriting did let the main protagonists down, foremost here a somewhat lazy rape gag – Violet’s protestations that the attractive young man might rape her was simply distasteful and evidence of poor writing, relying on Sir Ian to boom ‘For God’s sake, Violet, no-one wants to rape you!’ to turn a laugh. ‘Misjudged’ best summed up how we felt about this.
Nevertheless, other elements provided for good old-fashioned chortles, particularly the rather ‘leftfield’ nature of some of comic turns, in particular the mysterious curtain in Freddie and Stuart’s flat that, when Ash opens it, causes them to flee from the light in terrified fashion (?), or the random musings of supporting character Penelope (Marcia Warren), who falls asleep with her eyes open during Clive’s wake and misses most of the action, especially the continued attempts to discern Ash’s sexuality (he’s straight, by the way). Sir Ian and Sir Derek naturally command presence and, from a personal point of view, seemed to take their lines in a theatrical manner; this often felt more like watching a stage show farce than a TV programme, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In any case, one thing that Vicious very much relied on was stereotypes, and it certainly seemed to earn itself a bit of an online ‘bashing’ for that. The question is, did this really matter and did affect its comic value? Well, actually no – it was quite funny, and all stereotypes proceed from a grain of truth. The target audience of Vicious might have taken better to the show if the protagonists had been middle-aged women being bitchy than overtly camp elderly men, but this demographic does exist. Furthermore, it’s fair enough to bemoan stereotypes, but surely a depiction of an overtly ‘straight-acting’ elderly gay couple would feel equally forced?
The bottom line is that you’re only going to appreciate Vicious if you take it for what it is – it’s not meant to be Shakespeare, it’s a sitcom. Did people get uppity about Last of the Summer Wine for portraying ‘northern’ stereotypes – well no. A ‘gay’ sitcom is going to trade on stereotypes. And it had some funny lines. Granted, the formula may become somewhat tired. The big question is whether or not enough momentum can be maintained – six weeks relying on the main characters being bitchy as the main plot device would soon become wearing. To make that judgement, however, we really have to wait and see.